It’s midwinter here on the shores of Roaringwater Bay. It brings hard frosts (above – Rossbrin), clear days and spectacular skies – we caught the one below in 2020:
Winter is the time of the Cailleach.
. . . The Cailleach is the goddess of the winter months and is said to control the weather and the winds as well as the length and harshness of winter. Depicted as a veiled hag or an old crone, with one eye and deathly pale skin, she is said to have a bow-legged leaping gait, striding across mountains with a power to shape and transform the landscapes as rocks fall from her gathered apron . . . The Cailleach, or the Hag, has been feared and revered across Celtic cultures in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, for hundreds of years. She is called Beira in Scotland, and has strong associations with the Beara Peninsula in Ireland, which straddles County Cork and County Kerry . . .
The Hag of Beara petrified in Hag Rock (above): she forever looks out across the Beara. Below – this is the Hag’s permanent view over her landscape.
Lest there be any doubt about the Hag’s longevity, this is instructive:
. . . There is a tale of a wandering friar and his scribe who came to the old woman’s house. He inquired as to her great age, which he had heard stories of. She replied that she didn’t know, but that every year she killed an ox and made soup from the bones—and perhaps they could gauge her age by the number of ox bones thrown up in the attic. The young scribe climbed the ladder and threw the bones down one by one for the friar to count. The friar duly made a mark on his paper for each bone, and a great pile of bones grew until he had run out of paper. He called up to the young scribe, who replied that he had not even cleared one corner of the pile of bones, such was the great age of the Cailleach . . .
Above – The Wailing Woman (courtesy of Ronan Mac Giollapharaic) – dramatically depicts another Hag rock, overlooking the Skelligs on the Iveragh Peninsula, Co Kerry. It is a given that Cailleach is one of Ireland’s most ancient inhabitants. Even older, in fact, than Cessair, Noah’s grand-daughter, who we know arrived on our own West Cork shores some five thousand years ago. With her in her Bronze Age crew were her father – Bith – and Fionntán, together with ‘a large company of women’ whose combined purpose was to repopulate the world after the Great Flood.
. . . Legend has it that Fintan the Wise of the hundred lives accompanied Noah’s granddaughter, Cessair, to Ireland before the great Biblical flood. He thought himself the first to set foot on the island but found Cailleach living there, and could see she was far more ancient than himself. He is said to have asked of her, “Are you the one, the grandmother who ate the apples in the beginning?” but received no answer . . .
The Cailleach rules over the the dead of Winter (above – Rossbrin Cove in that time). If you research the Schools Folklore Collection you will find over 830 entries referring to her: many are recorded in Irish.
. . . An Cailleach Béarach according to tradition was supposed to be a witch who is believed to have erected most of the round towers and castles in this country. Tradition tells us that she built each of those buildings with three pocketfulls of stones. As well as being a famous builder, she is believed to have been a great mower. At the time of her death, it is said, she was 121 years and one day . . .
. . . The Cailleach Béarach started one day mowing with a score of men. The men led off & she took up the rear. After an hour’s work, she caught up to the man who was last and mowed off his legs from above the ankles. She continued the work until she caught up to the man who was second last & she cut off his legs also. This procedure continued until all the men but one had their legs cut off. At this stage, they went to their dinner . . .
The most frequently occurring references to the Cailleach are her feats in sculpting the landscape. Many features in the west of Ireland are attributed to her work.
. . . There is a hill in this locality called Keash Hill. Caves at the back of this hill are still pointed out as places where giants lived. Nearby there is a hollow with a flag flooring which is called the “Giants’ Table” and likely it is here they cooked and eat their food. Running parallel to this hill and at the back of it is a place called “Dun Ui Bhéara” where the Cailleach Bhéara is supposed to have lived. Old people tell stories of a fight between the Cailleach Béara and one of the giants. He stood on the summit of the hill and fired stones down at her. She lifted stones and earth and fired them up at him. The stones that reached the top of the hill form a “cairn” which is still to be seen. The place from which they were taken formed a small lake which remains to the present day. Some time ago if children were bold their mothers threatened to tell Cailleach Bhéara and immediately they got quiet. She was able to walk across Lough Arrow and the waters at their deepest part just reached her arm pit . . .
SCHOOLS FOLKLORE COLLECTION – INFORMANT MR James Benson, Kesh, Co Sligo
. . . When the Summer came the Cailleach Bhéara drove the bull out to the grassy parts of Béara. One day when the bull was being driven out, he heard a cow lowing in Kerry, so he started off towards her. The Cailleach went ahead of him, but he jumped into the tide and started to swim for Kerry. The Cailleach struck him with her wand and as she was doing it, the bull called the cow, and her calf with him, and they form the Bull, Cow, and Calf rocks now . . .
Finally, we must not overlook a poem written by Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. Pearse was executed on May 3 in that year – aged 36 – for his part in this ‘rebellion’. In this photograph, Pearse can be seen reading the oration at the funeral of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa on 1 August 1915. I am completing this post with the words of Mise Éire, written by Pearse in 1912.
Mise Éire: Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra
Mór mo ghlóir: Mé a rug Cú Chulainn cróga.
Mór mo náir: Mo chlann féin a dhíol a máthair.
Mór mo phian: Bithnaimhde do mo shíorchiapadh.
Mór mo bhrón: D’éag an dream inar chuireas dóchas.
Mise Éire: Uaigní mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra.
I am Ireland: I am older than the Hag of Beara.
Great my glory: I who bore brave Cú Chulainn.
Great my shame: My own children that sold their mother.
Great my pain: My irreconcilable enemies who harass me continually.
Great my sorrow: That crowd, in whom I placed my trust, decayed.
I am Ireland: I am lonelier than the Hag of Beara.
There’s a fine ringfort just over the hill from us – in the townland of Ballycummisk. A definition of a ‘ringfort’ in archaeological terms is given here:
. . . Many people lived in enclosed farmsteads known as ringforts in the Early Christian/Early Medieval period. Second to fulachta fiadh, they are the most common field monument surviving in Ireland with up to 60,000 examples, most dating to between 550-900AD. Ringforts are circular areas, measuring c24-60m in diameter, usually enclosed with one or more earthen banks, often topped with a timber palisade. In the west of Ireland the ringfort was often enclosed by a stone wall, with stone huts in the interior. Traces of iron and bronze working have been recovered suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional . . .
A simpler definition comes from the monumental 1200-page Volume 1 of the ‘New History of Ireland’ series published in 2005 and edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín: “archaeologists are agreed that the vast bulk of them are the farm enclosures of the well-to-do of early medieval Ireland”.
The upper picture is taken from within the ringfort enclosure; the north bank of the fort can be seen beyond a small stone outcrop which is said to be the site of a souterrain. Time for another definition:
. . . Souterrain: an underground structure consisting of one or more chambers connected by narrow passages or creepways, usually constructed of drystone-walling with a lintelled roof over the passages and a corbelled roof over the chambers. Most souterrains appear to have been built in the early medieval period by ringfort inhabitants (c. 500 – 1000 AD) as a defensive feature and/or for storage . . .
The Schools Folklore Collection is an important source of local beliefs and traditions – if not exactly historical information. The stories were collected in the 1930s but were remembered through family traditions which could go back through several generations. The example pages above – dating from 1936 – describe the Ballycummisk fort. Here is a transcription of the paragraph:
. . . There is a fort in a place called Ballycummisk. It is near the sea, and was first found about two years ago by people who were ploughing. It is a hole going down through the ground, with four stone walls. You could not see down now, because it was filled in when they got to it. They could only see the walls. They dug down about a yard, and then drove down a ten foot crowbar, but the bottom could not be found. Very small pipes were found and shells This field is sloping to the sea. A stone about a yard long was also found. They thought it to be a handle for some old stone weapon . . .
Schools Folklore Collection Frank coughlan Ballydehob
Frank Coughlan’s description almost certainly refers to the discovery of a souterrain. It doesn’t quite ring true as he says that “the field is sloping down to the sea”. In fact, the fields containing the ringfort are sloping southwards away from the sea, which is not visible at all from the site.
This aerial view shows parts of the townlands of Ballycummisk and Cappaghglass. The ringfort is marked. Another nearby feature – also shown – is a large standing stone, known as ‘Bishop’s Luck’.
The stone is 1.6m high, 2.05m in length, and 0.45m in width: tall and wide in one direction, and relatively narrow in the other. It is also worth noting that the ‘long’ orientation is exactly North-South. This stone has been in this position for at least 180 years as it appears in the earliest edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey (1830s), marked as ‘Gallaun’ – and even given a little illustration!
The standing stone is not far from the ringfort: perhaps there is a connection, although standing stones are generally reckoned to date from earlier times than the forts. Here is an extract from a recent article in Archaeology Ireland: Vol 34 No 1 (Spring 2020) pp 26-29, Wordwell Ltd:
. . . The classic standing stone surviving from the Bronze Age in Ireland is a rough-hewn or unshaped pillar, known as a gallaun (from the Irish gallán), generally oblong or oval in cross-section and up to 3m or more in height. Stones presumed to belong within this class vary considerably in height, from as little as 1m to as much as 6-7m in exceptional cases, the majority probably falling in the 1.5-2m range. Seán Ó Nualláin noted many years ago that in his experience the axis is generally aligned north-east/south-west. This is by no means a universal rule. Gallauns are by far the most numerous of all pre-Christian standing stones in Ireland. Approximately 600 are known in Cork and Kerryb alone. Beyond this region, examples are to be found extensively throughout the Irish countryside and many of them have attracted folk explanations . . .
Lone Standing Stones by Muiris O’Sullivan and Liam DowneY Archaeology Ireland 2020
In these two pictures you can see the striking profile of the Bishop’s Luck standing stone against the skyline which features Mount Gabriel – the highest piece of land in the immediate area. Gabriel was an important place in prehistoric times as the centre of a significant copper mining industry – yet no artefacts have ever been found on the summit. In the lower picture you can see how the western edge of the standing stone ‘echoes’ the distant profile of Gabriel on the horizon. This is a phenomenon that has been noted a few times with regard to stones standing in the landscape. Here is Gabriel seen from the ringfort:
Finola has written comprehensively about standing stones in this Journal: here and here. O’Sullivan and Downey mention (above) that examples have attracted folk explanations. This doesn’t seem to be the case here: no mention is made of the stone in the Schools Folklore Collection. But surely there must be significance in the name: Bishop’s Luck?
But – hang on! There is ‘Bishop’ folklore associated with a site not very far away – in the neighbouring townland of Stouke. Finola recorded this in her 2016 post here. It’s a simple tale: The story goes that during the time of the penal laws a Bishop was confirming children nearby when the redcoats got wind of his activities and came to arrest him. He was beheaded. A bullaun stone in the graveyard at Stouke is supposed to be his head. If our possibly Bronze Age stone in Ballycummisk had anything to do with this, it should surely be known as Bishop’s Bad Luck?
One further place that’s worth a mention here is the top of the hill to the south of the ringfort and standing stone. It doesn’t have a name, but it does have a magnificent view across to Rossbrin Harbour, with Cape Clear on the horizon in the far distance. There is a passage grave on the high point of Cape Clear. There seems to be some evidence for the inter-visibility of ancient sites, which makes me wonder whether there was ever any early structure on this hilltop. There are rocky outcrops there in the present day, and field clearance is evidenced by the presence of large slabs in the nearby field boundaries.
These are just thoughts, but I don’t mind thinking them! West Cork (and most of rural Ireland) must have much to reveal in terms of its ancient history. One point to remember: if you ever go searching yourself for archaeology or old sites, don’t forget that you will probably be entering private land. It is courteous to always seek permission: most owners are agreeable and – perhaps – may have stories to tell themselves.
It’s taken me a while to visit this notorious site which is situated on a summit of the Dublin Mountains. The view across the city from the 390 metre peak is stunning:
It’s the stories and the folklore that attracted me to this place, long known as the Hell Fire Club. In the eighteenth century ‘Speaker’ Connolly built it as a hunting lodge. According to tradition he used the stones from a prehistoric monument that was previously on the hill. It’s now known from recent excavations that at this location was one – or two – passage tombs dating from the Neolithic Period (4500 – 2000 BC). This – or these – were surrounded by a circle of large boulders known as a cairn. Today, some fragmentary traces of the earliest use of the site can be detected. The best information on the neolithic site is found in the Abarta Heritage report, here. An earlier description, dating from 1779 in fact, was written by Austin Cooper, who visited in that year:
. . . Behind the house are still the remains of the cairn, the limits of which were composed of large stones set edgeways which made a sort of wall or boundary about 18 inches high and withinside these were the small stones heaped up. It is 34 yards diameter or 102 yards in circumference. In the very centre is a large stone 9 feet long and 6 feet broad and about 3 feet thick not raised upon large stones but lying low with the stones cleared away from about it. There are several other large stones lying upon the heap . . .
William Connolly (Speaker of the Irish House of Commons) was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland; he had a house in the city and a country estate at Castletown, near Celbridge. It is said that he deliberately used stones from the ancient tomb in the construction of the hunting lodge at Mountpelier. Shortly after it was built the roof, which was originally slated, was blown off in a great storm. Locals attributed this misfortune to the work of the devil, in revenge for the destruction of the cairn. Following this event the lodge gained a reputation as a place where evil prevailed. However, Connolly replaced the slated roof with a stone vault which still exists today, although the building is effectively a ruin.
The Irish Hell Fire Club members were some of the elite of society, and included peers of the realm, high ranking army officers as well as wealthy gentlemen and artists. Here is a portrait of some of them by James Worsdale (himself a Club member); it is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
Mountpelier is a significant mountain top overlooking Dublin, and is now fully accessible to all. A warning, though – in good weather the Coillte car-park very soon fills up (at all times of the year) and there is nowhere else nearby to leave your vehicle – get there early!
It could be said that the ruin of the lodge is ‘maintained’ in that it is stabilised and unlikely to fall down. If you are exploring, look out for the lintel over the large fireplace, which is supposed to be a standing stone removed from the passage grave site.
The Hell Fire Club is, of course, haunted! Not that we saw anything untoward when we visited on a glorious spring day. But the stories abound. They are probably best told through the accounts in the Schools Folklore Collection:
. . . About six miles from Dublin the Hell Fire Club is on a hill. It is a medium size old castle.When the owner of it died nobody else claimed it. All the men of the district came to play cards in it every night. One night when all the men were playing their nightly game one of the men cheated. The men rushed upon him over-powered him. The bound him hand and foot and put him in a barrel of whiskey. Then they set fire to it burning him alive. That was a cruel thing to do but then men did not care. From that day on that old castle was called the Hell Fire Club . . .
Stewart Somerville, Dundrum School
. . . There is an old ruin called Hell Fire Club on the very top of one of the Dublin Hills. This house was built by a man named Connelly, during the time of the Famine. It was built to give employment to the men. Many men used to got to Hell Fire Club to gamble. It is said that one night they were playing cards and there was much money on the table. One man dropped a card on the floor, and when he stooped down to pick it up he noticed a man with cows feet, and he wore a red cloak. The men were very frightened and they made a great uproar. The man turned into a ball of fire. All the men were burned in the fire. There was one man who had a bunch of medals attached to his coat and he was the only man who escaped from the burning house . . .
Mr Finlay, Rockbrook, Co Dublin
. . . The Hell Fire Club, or the Brass Castle is situated near Rathfarnham in the Co Dublin. My Great-grandfather used to pass by the Brass Castle on his way home from work, (he was a mason) he had a habit of hitting the wall with his trowel to hear the ring of the brass. One night a priest had to go on a sick call. When he was coming home through the mountains he lost his way. Seeing a light he went in that direction. He knocked at the door of the house, which happened to be the Brass Castle – The door was opened by a man who was dressed in black with a black mask on his face. The priest was brought in to a room. Sitting at a large table were twelve men dressed the same as the first one. The men were playing cards. On the table was seated a large black cat. The men defied the priest to put the cat away. The priest ordered the cat down, but it never moved. Again he ordered it down, but the cat did not move. The men laughed at the priest and jeered him. The third time the priest said “Begone Satan”. The cat jumped from the table and disappeared up the chimney with a loud roar. The priest told the men that the cat was the devil. The men were never heard of again. The priest got home safe, and from that time onward the Brass Castle was called the Hell Fire Club. This story is true. It was told to me by mother, because the Brass Castle belonged to her ancestors . . .
Seán Ó Nuamáin, Kilbride, Co Wicklow
The Mountpelier Woods consist of around 5.5 kilometres of forest roads and tracks. The woods offer nature trails and a permanent orienteering course. Lord Massy’s Estate and Mountpelier Hill are also traversed by the Dublin Mountains Way hiking trail that runs between Shankill and Tallaght. It’s an attractive walk at all times of the year, with easy access from Dublin city centre.
A comprehensive application to An Bord Pleanála was submitted in July 2017, seeking permission to establish a Dublin Mountains Visitor Centre with associated works relating to tourism, leisure and recreational activities which would embrace the Hell Fire Club site and the mountain trails. Permission was granted, subject to conditions, on 25 June 2020. Another chapter in the story of this notorious locality unfolds . . .
As a tailpiece, I found this image of a ‘Hell Fire Club Goblet’ dating from c1745. It’s currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it must originate from Ireland: James Worsdale, whose name appears on this glass, was appointed Master of the Revels in the Dublin Hell Fire Club in 1741. It was also he who painted the portrait of Club members illustrated in this post: look at their goblets in the painting!
It’s the most visible and significant feature on the West Cork landscape, so of course there are lots of legends about Mount Gabriel. A surprising number of stories revolve around a tiny pool near the top of the mountain, labelled on the historic OS maps as Poulanenine. The most likely etymology for this is Poul an Oigheann – the Pool of the Cauldron (oigheann also means oven, but cauldron seems a more likely translation).
Reading these stories in Dúchas* and finding the pool on the maps, I knew that we had to see it for ourselves. Fortunately, Mount Gabriel (looming over Schull, above) is within our 5k limit and luckily necessitates no human interaction (as a people person, that’s a phrase I never thought I would write) so we set off yesterday to find it. Yes, your intrepid bloggers stop at nothing to bring you the best of West Cork arts and culture!
Having made a couple of wrong decisions as to the best way to get there, at one point we found ourselves edging backwards over a slippery cliff, clinging to bits of heather and wondering just how foolish we would look when the Search and Rescue Team had to be called out to save a couple of septuagenarians who claimed to be looking for a fairy tale location.
But we made it – and there it was, a tiny remnant of the Ice Age, the Cauldron Pool! It’s referred to as a lake in the stories and there are several versions of how it was made. Here’s an admirably succinct one:
There is a little lake on the top of Mount Gabriel called Poll an Oighin. There is a saying that Fionn Mac Cumhail took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. Another saying is that if a stick was thrown into Poll an Oighin it would come out in Schull harbour.
The fact that there is an underground route from the lake to Schull Harbour is born out by this story too:
But not all versions assign the origin of the lake to Finn McCool.
Long ago the devil was flying over Mount Gabriel and he was flying so low that he hit his wing against a rock. He got so cross that he took a bite out of the rock. When he had gone eight or nine miles from Mount Gabriel, he left the rock fall into the sea. The rock was so large that a part of it remained over the water and it is on that rock the lighthouse is built on now and it is known as the Fastnet Rock. There is a large lake where he took the bite and the water in that lake is of a black colour.
The black water
However, the most charming, and longest story belongs to an entry from Macroom, far away from Mount Gabriel. The school girl, Julia Creedon, got it from Dan O’Sullivan, also of Macroom, although undoubtedly Dan knew the story from his youth so must have been from the area around Schull. I am reproducing it in full, and readers will recognise many elements familiar to such legends everywhere. One of the most striking aspects of this story is its use of familiar names and places to fix the story in this exact locality.
Near the village of Schull, is Mount Gabriel whose peak rises 1,000 feet above sea level. The unspoiled charm of the magnificent view from its summit is unsurpassable.
The Meenvane road leads you out of the village and on to the gap road; which runs between two high cliffs on the east side of the mountain known as “The Gap of Mount Gabriel”, From here you have a view of nature’s splendour: a number of Carberys Hundred Isles scattered over the great expanse of the Atlantic which amply repays you for the stiff climb. It has been compared to a post card album, you study, as it were, one lovely post card, on turning a leaf you get an entirely different, yet, equally beautiful view to gaze upon, but here you simply turn your head.
Facing south you see on the Coosheen hill the ruins of the old white castle once the seat of the O’Mahoneys. Turning north the Hungry Hill can be seen in the distance. The beautiful country of the valley reflecting every mood of nature runs down to Dunbeacon Castle, once the home of Chieftain O’Sullivan, whose ruins now stands at the edge of Dunmanus Bay, beneath the shadow of Mount Gabriel. Sir H. De La Béche** says in his History of Cork “It was as striking of its kind as any he had seen in Switzerland.”
Following the road and keeping to the left, you find a patch on the north side of the mountain which leads you to the bottomless lake, situated almost on the top of the mountain. There are many beautiful traditions of this picturesque locality, still amongst the older peasants of the district, one of which is: –
“The Legend of the Bottomless Lake” is as follows: Chieftain O’ Sullivan, of Dunbeacon Castle, had one child, a daughter, Rosaleen. So beautiful and fair was she that the poets described her as “The Rose of the Valley”. She had a lover, one, Owen O’Mahoney, of the White Castle. When O’Sullivan heard of his daughter’s friendship with O’Mahoney he was very angry as Owen could never hope for more than a younger son’s share. Notwithstanding this, the young lovers were ideally happy.
What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle
One evening as Rosaleen returned home after a walk with her lover, she was brought into the presence of her father’s guest, Chieftain O’Driscoll of the Three Head Castle. He was known to Rosaleen, who thoroughly disliked him, as an elderly bachelor, who drank a lot of rich wines, boasted a lot of his castles, of the men he had killed, and the women who loved him. When Rosaleen heard he had come that day, to ask her in marriage, and that her father gave his consent, she was horrified. Outwardly calm, she explained to her father and O’Driscoll that she loved Owen O’Mahoney, and would marry no other. Her love for Owen was far dearer to her than her life. Her father listened not to her pleading; he settled the day for her wedding to O’Driscoll giving “The Rose of the Valley” just one week to get used to the idea and to forget Owen O’Mahoney.
During that week her father saw to it that she was kept a prisoner in his castle. But love finds a way. The beautiful Rosaleen got a letter sent to her lover telling him of her plight.
Three Castle Head
All the notable chieftains for miles round were invited to Dunbeacon Castle. There was great feasting and merry-making on the day preceding the date fixed for the wedding.
The night before the wedding when all were merry and gay Rosaleen received that for which she had being praying, a letter from Owen. Following his instructions she made her escape from the castle, and was met by her lover. Helping her on to his horse, he sprang up behind her, and faced for his father’s castle in Coosheen.
Fearing Rosaleen’s escape would be discovered, they left the road and took the path over the mountains. It was a bright moonlight night. Looking back they saw no trace of pursuit.
Rosaleen saw a little spring well, she dismounted and knelt and drank from the spring. Her face reflected in the water, was so beautiful that the “Good People” in the well, desired to get her for themselves. Rosaleen jumped to her feet when she saw the water, rising round her. She ran towards her lover the water ran after her until a small lake was formed.
Owen seeing her plight, lifted her on to his horse and springing behind her, once more he made his way down the other side of the mountain. The “Good People” seeing they were beaten in their attempt to capture the beautiful “Rose of the Valley” got very angry, and reversed the flow of the spring. Down, down, down went the bottom of the lake until its waters flowed into Schull Harbour.
Some hours after O’Driscoll went in pursuit of his bride and muddled with drink, drove his horse over the mountain. Taking the sheet of water for a flat rock in the moonlight, he drove straight into it and disappeared under the surface of the lake. His men following behind reigned up and waited for their chieftain to re-appear Seeing no trace of him, they rode back with all haste to acquaint O’Sullivan with news of the disaster that had overtaken O’Driscoll. Chieftain O’Sullivan, believing that his daughter had met with the same fate as O’Driscoll, was filled with remorse. He tore his hair in grief for his beautiful lost daughter.
White Castle (Ardintenant Castle) from the sea, Mount Gabriel behind
Great was his joy when he heard that she was safe and well married to Owen O’Mahoney and dwelling at the White Castle.
He rode immediately to Coosheen and asked Owen’s forgiveness. He promised him Dunbeacon Castle and all his estate if only he would bring her back “The Rose of the Valley”.
I can’t help wondering about Julia Creedon. Although she may have faithfully reproduced the essence of the story she heard from Dan O’Sullivan, her own abilities are very evident in this story, as is her immersion in reading other stories in this genre. Did she become a seanachaí (a story teller), or a teacher or a writer? She has two other stories in the Schools Collection as well, including a long one about the River Lee, just as precociously written in the same lovely cursive, with headings underlined in red ink. If she were still alive, she would be in her late 90s now.
The story of this bottomless pool has an even older history than the 1930s. In 1780 Philip Luckombe published his A Tour Through Irelandand tells of the same lake when describing a journey from Bantry. Luckombe was one of our earliest plagiarists – he took his accounts almost verbatim from even earlier books and there is no evidence that he was ever even in Ireland. From our point of view this means that the story predates 1780 so it has an impressive pedigree indeed.
Next time, more about some of the other legends that have accrued to Mount Gabriel.
It’s further than it looks
* Dúchas is the National Folklore Archive and within this is The Schools Collection: “For the duration of the project, [1937-39] more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.” The Collection is online and is searchable at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes. I have done a little minor editing to the entries above for consistency in punctuation and spelling.
**This is a reference to Sir Henry De la Beche, founder of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland.
Over the course of a marathon seven posts, I wrote about the Rev William Allen Fisher, revered by his kin and congregation as the energetic and saintly saviour of hundreds of famished souls during the Great Hunger, and reviled by his Catholic clerical counterparts as one of the worst examples of a Protestant Clergyman who bought conversions with food and employment. Balanced precariously on the fence of fairness, I concluded that he was both a Saint and a Souper, conflating, as he did, the imperative to feed the body with his mission to save souls.
Paul Farmiloe’s lovely sketch of Fisher’s church, Teampall na mBocht in Toormore
It is difficult to overstate, from this remove, how normal his kind of evangelical Protestantism was for the time in which he lived and worked. Ultimately, though, he was on the losing end of history. Not only did the Protestant Crusade, of which he was an enthusiastic proponent, fail to convert broad masses of ‘Papists’ but the burgeoning social and economic power of the Catholic Church ensured that those individuals who had converted to the Church of Ireland felt the full might of episcopal condemnation. Indeed, to be accused of being a Souper remains to this day one of the worst insults that can be said to an Irish person.
In this church-dominated narrative, which all of us were fed in school in the 50s and 60s (betraying my age there – and I am in that blurry photo above), there was no room for allowing that a conversion to the Church of Ireland could possibly be through genuine conviction or a change of heart. No, such conversions – or perversions as they were labelled at the time – came as a result of taking advantage of people driven mad with hunger. Knowing as we did that Catholicism was the one true faith, how could we accept that anyone in their right mind could abandon it? It’s always been interesting to me, by the way, that at the same time as we were taught to excoriate those who converted away from their own faith, we were happily offering up our pennies to fill the collection boxes that every school had for Ireland’s extensive Missions Programs, in which Irish priests and nuns (including members of my own family) spread out across the world with the intent of wresting souls away from other religions.
In the second half of the 1930s the Folklore Commission collected stories and local traditions from over 50,000 schoolchildren in Ireland (like the boys in the 1930s classroom above) – now all available online. I was curious whether stories of the Rev Fisher had persisted in local memory and I turned to this collection to look, specifically to the schools in the vicinity of Toormore. And yes – here it all was, occasionally in remarkable specificity, still very much alive ninety years after the events had taken place.
Mary O’Sullivan from Toormore National School contributed this detailed piece:
The only landlord that any of the old people around here heard tell of were Mr Baylie and Mr Fisher. Although a Protestant, he was a very good man, and all his tenants were catholics, in fact the Catholic curate of the parish was living in a cottage on his lands – where Mr Hogan now resides. All his tenants were living in peace and comfort until he was forced to sell all his property to the church body, one of whose agents was a minister named Mr Fisher.
The first act that he did was to issue notices that any catholic that did not pay the running half gale within a month would be evicted. All the catholics paid, and the next notice issued intimated that any catholic that did not go to church on the following Sunday would be evicted.
Some of the catholics remained steadfast, but as Fisher had the law in his own hands he had no trouble in evicting all those who he knew had the best of the lands. Those farms he divided into smaller lots, and gave to those whom he got to go to church.
There were two catholic schools in Toormore at that time, one for boys and the other for girls. These were closed so that the children should go to the Altar Protestant school. As the time went on the people got poorer as a result of evictions, and Mr Fisher keeping constantly going amongst the poor people with his charity and prayers he got some of them to go to church to save themselves from starvation. But others endured the greatest privation and kept the faith. Some of these that were evicted were given houses by their old landlord Mr Baylie.
Mr Fisher was supposed to have contracted what was called a slow fever, he was taken from the Altar to Dublin where he died.
I found that last paragraph interesting as I know that Fisher is on the same headstone (below) as his brother in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin but had been unable to find any account until now as to why he would not have been buried in his own churchyard in Goleen. I also need to point out that there is no evidence, or accusations in contemporary accounts, that Fisher evicted tenants or used eviction or a threat of eviction to force conversions. Finally, if anyone knows what a ‘running half gale’ refers to, do let us know as I have been unable to track down the term.
Eileen O’Driscoll, also of Toormore, had this version
The famine years lasted from 1845 to 1847. In this district the people had plenty of corn but they had to export it to England to pay the rent and the potato crop failed. The potato was their principal food for breakfast dinner and supper. Lots of them died of hunger and the fever came all over the county and swept them in hundreds. There were men hired for carrying them to the nearest burial ground which was Kilhangil. They had a special car for that purpose. They called it a bogey car. This man carried nine or ten at the time and dug a big hole and covered them over without any coffin. There was then a relief sent from England to all Parish priests and ministers. In this parish the the minister took hold of the clothes that were sent and some of the poor Catholics died of hunger before they would take anything from the Protestants and others took the clothes and turned Protestant. Mr Fisher was the minister of this parish and also the landlord of Toormore and Gorttyowen. He got the clothes and distributed them to anyone that went to the Protestant church on Sunday. Many Catholics availed of this offer and they were called “soupers or turncoats” The Bishop became angry and he sent a very strict priest to the parish. His name was Fr. Holland. He gave very harsh sermons to the people and we are told that when Mr Fisher got up on Monday mornings he found lots of clothes outside his door. A lot of the people still kept on getting the clothes. Fr. Holland said that he would curse the people that went to the protestant church. He got permission from the bishop to do so. One Sunday as he was speaking in Ballinaskeagh Church a man stood up and said he would go in spite of any Bishop to what churches he like himself. The man died before the end of that day, and his son was killed by his own horse within a week. This frightened the people and it forbade a great number from attending the Protestant Church any more There was one man in Toormore that went to the Protestant Church but he also went to Mass before going there. Mr. Fisher found this out. He met him one day and asked him why he was going to Mass and also going to Church He said he was going to Mass to save his soul and that he was going the Church for to save his body Mr. Fisher bought Mr. Bailey’s property which was Toormore, Gorttyowen, and the Altar. He evicted all the Catholic out of Gorttyowen Toormore but left those that remained souper in their holdings and they are known as Toormore soupers.
There is so much to unpack here. In this version of the story the main inducement to convert is the provision of clothing, rather than food. In Saints and Soupers Part 6 I related that Bishop Delany of Cork had sent the firebrand Fr John James Murphy (AKA The Black Eagle of the North) to sort out the situation and he had succeeded in winning back (or browbeating) many of the converts. There was indeed a Father Timothy Holland in Goleen, but it was several years after the Famine, from 1863 to 1867, and his fierceness and effectiveness has obviously lived on in folk memory and become intertwined with that of Fr Murphy. (Perhaps it was Fr Holland who lined up all the newly married parishioners and married them again in case they hadn’t been ‘properly’ married the first time – see the comments at the end of Part 7.)
The story of the man who asserted his independence of choice only to be struck down, along with his son, is a trope of many Irish stories, often revolving around the wilful destruction of a fairy fort or a holy well. Finally, Kilhangil, nowadays a particularly beautiful and peaceful spot (below), may be familiar to you from the post Mizen Magic 19: Church of the Angels
A pithy entry from Mary Lucey of Ballyrizard relates information from her father, Tim.
Mr Fisher was landlord of Toormore. He was a very bad man and he hated the Catholic Religion. All Catholics who would not become Protestants were evicted. Most of them kept the faith but some turned Protestants for the sake of keeping their land.
Once again, eviction takes centre stage, this time as the outcome of refusing to turn Protestant. Hating the Catholic Religion is equated with being a very bad man.
Kathleen McCarthy from Lowertown School (that’s Lowertown townland, above) wrote about many aspects of the Famine, including this section on Fisher.
The famine times were from the beginning of eighteen forty seven to the end of eighteen forty eight. The conditions of the Catholics was terrible at that time. Their potatoes were destroyed with the blight, and they had to sell their wheat to pay the rent. In this district three quarters of the people died with hunger.
The English sent yellow meal to the Protestant minister in Toormore to distribute among the people but it was the Protestants who got the most of it. Any Catholic who would turn a Protestant would go to the minister’s house every day and they would get a bowl of soup to drink and meal to take home. Nearly every Catholic in Toormore turned Protestant in that time and their descendants are there today, Protestants and bearing Catholic names. Toormore is known as “the land of soupers” on account of the number of people that turned Protestant for a bowl of soup. There lived one man in Toormore called John Barry and he had seven children. Six of the children died with starvation and he would not go to Fisher for anything for them.
This is the first account we have of Taking the Soup, and the labelling of Toormore as ‘the Land of the Soupers’. The story of the man who would rather let his children starve to death than take the soup is a familiar one. While these John Barrys were held up, in our history lessons, as a model of steadfastness and an exemplar of Catholicism, I remember being horrified that any father would act in this way. Perhaps it’s one of the thousand little cuts that eventually ushered me out of the church.
A cloakroom in a traditional schoolhouse
Annie Donovan collected information from Jeremiah Donovan of Gunpoint who was 97 when he was interviewed. There is a long and detailed description of the conditions and burial practices during the Famine, and it includes this short piece:
The Catholics were starving with the hunger and Fisher who lived in Toormore at that time gave meal and soup to any Catholics that would go to him. Nearly every person in Toormore went to him for the soup and yellow meal, and they turned Protestants also. They were called “Soupers” and the village of Toormore was called “The village of the Soupers” since and their descendants are still living in Toormoor with Catholic names.
This is a particularly interesting account, since Jeremiah would have lived through some of the events he relates, as a young boy. There is also the same reference as in Kathleen McCarthy’s essay to ‘Protestants with Catholic names’ – a poignant reminder that in Ireland one’s last name is often a pointer to one’s religious affiliation.
Peter Clarke’s beautiful sketch of the church that Fisher built at Toormore, also called the Altar Church and Teampall na mBocht (Church of the Poor)
A long but anonymous entry from Gloun School (on the slopes of Mount Gabriel – the old school house at the end of this post is associated) goes into great detail about various aspects of the Famine, mainly centring on evil landlords, and contains this:
At the time of the famine, some Catholics turned Protestants. They became perverts to get soup which the Protestants minister gave out. The name of the minister of Toormore was Mr. Fisher.
Some of the “soupers” were William O Donovan and John O Donovan both natives of Toormore. William O Donovan’s daughter, Mrs Coughlan, still lives in Corthna. John Donovan’s grandson is a shop-keeper in Schull, whose name is Joseph Woods. Another man who was a “souper” was Joseph Daly, a native of Toormore. He afterwards became a minister. Before he became a “souper” he was so holy it was said that he could walk upon the waters. He tried to do it once, before a crowd but he sank. He also answered Mass in Ballinashker Chapel barefoot once. His son lives in Schull. Ever since Toormore is sometimes called “the land of the soupers” and the Protestant Church is called ” Teampall na mboct” which means”the Church of the poor”.
I think this piece, more than any other, is illustrative both of the long memory of these events and of the classroom ethos of devout Catholicism in which this child writes – an atmosphere in which it has been normalised to name and shame the ‘Soupers’ and their descendants several generations on. This is divisive sectarianism at its most abhorrent, and it’s just as important to understand this, as it is to chuckle at the funny verses and old folktales that the children also write about.
The old school house at Lissacaha near Gloun
There’s more, but I think this gives you a flavour. Rev William Fisher has left a complex legacy. Some of it springs from his own actions – we haven’t exonerated him from bigotry and over-enthusiastic proselytising (another possible future post, in the light of new information). But it’s also based in the narrow, blinkered, self-righteous Catholicism that encouraged the condemnation of neighbour by neighbour, in the name of religion. It would be good to think we’ve moved beyond that now, in Ireland.
I confess I’m stretching things a bit here: the 297m peak in the townland of Letterlicky, West Cork, fits well enough into my definition of mountains – anything above the 200 metre contour line. But is this one on the Mizen? We think of our own village of Ballydehob as being ‘The Gateway to The Mizen’ in the south-east, and it would be logical to have another ‘Gateway’ at Durrus, where the northern coastline of the Mizen meets the Sheeps Head. If you draw a straight line between these two points, then today’s subject misses out. But – there are no straight lines in nature, and this peak is a continuation of a natural ridge line that rises down on the Mizen near Mount Corrin and runs east.
But if you are uncomfortable with my concept of what is or isn’t the Mizen, just go with the subtitle of this post: The Old Bog Road. We found Letterlicky Cairn quite by accident as our exploration set out to follow a trackway that we had often passed, on the high road to the north of Ballybane West. We had no idea where the track would take us, but it’s very well defined, roughly paved and probably quite old. As we journeyed up into the hills, we could see that the track was there to serve peat workings which must have been used for generations. The extent of the peat workings – and the line of the old road serving them – show up well on the aerial map view below.
It was a sunless mid-March day when we set out: the wind was in the east and there was little colour in the landscape. There were, as yet, few signs of spring. We could see the ridge in the distance and, happily, the track appeared to climb towards it. In Ireland, the days of cutting peat for fuel are numbered: commercial operations will cease by 2025. Generations of families in rural areas have historically cut peat by hand and lay claims on the rights to do this. Increased regulation will eventually see this tradition declining along with all other fossil fuel production as carbon neutral ways to produce energy are developed. It seemed significant that the large array of 20 giant wind turbines on the high land to the east was a constant backdrop on our journey along the Old Bog Road.
Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh (1907 – 1967) was an amateur photographer who recorded life in rural Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century. We have used examples of his work in previous posts. These two prints (above) demonstrate the hand-working of peat faces and the transporting of sods from the workings. Our Old Bog Road would have seen similar sights in its heyday.
As we threaded our way through the peat workings, we could see the track carrying on towards the ridge. We had done no prior research into the area we were traversing, but as the way grew higher and higher – and we realised we must be coming to a high point in the landscape – we wondered whether there would be any signs of ancient activity on the mountain top. We could see other high points around us – Mount Kidd to the south and Mount Gabriel to the west – and, beyond, a spectacular distant view over Roaringwater Bay: a place like this would have been considered special, surely, to those who knew it thousands of years ago.
Views from the Old Bog Road: upper – Mount Kidd; middle – Mount Gabriel, and lower – the islands of Roaringwater Bay
As we rounded the last bend in the trackway we could see the summit ahead of us. Initially, we were delighted to see a substantial cairn. But we were surprised by the number of larger, roughly shaped boulders and slabs which were lying around it. Also, there seemed to be a substantial earthen raised platform.
To add to the interest – and the enigma – there were some 21st century monuments on the same hilltop. An inscribed bench and a carved wooden marker which resembled a gravestone, with wording on both sides:
Our subsequent enquiries have given us a little information about Mick Townshend (1951 – 2012). He was well know locally, related to the Townshends of Castletownshend, and lived near Ballybane West. The bench was made by his friend Charlie, and was intended to be installed in Ballydehob: we don’t know why it is now here at the mercy of the elements, but it’s easy to imagine someone finding such a place inspirational, and perhaps asking to be remembered at this spot.
Although it wasn’t the best of days, the view to the north was exceptional, taking in Bantry Bay and the Beara mountains beyond. It’s a place that demands to be returned to. As we prepared for the descent we heard the sound of a small engine, and suddenly there was farmer Florence McCarthy arriving on a quad bike with two collies running behind: they were searching for lost sheep. Good chat was had – although, in deference to the Coronavirus crisis, we all kept the currently regulation distance apart. It felt very unnatural to not shake hands, and we forgot to ask for a photograph, until Florence was just disappearing over the brow of the hill!
The cairn is a scheduled monument, described prosaically on the Archaeological Survey Database as: Circular area (19.5m N-S; 19m E-W) defined by scatter of large rectangular stones. The Duchas folklore collection proved far more interesting, although I can’t be sure that this entry from Gort Uí Chluana School, Bantry, in 1936 is referring to the same cairn:
Long ago when some of the people from the north of Ballydehob used be carrying their “firkins” of butter to Cork they used go through an old road in the town land of Letter Lickey . . .
On the side of this old road it is supposed that one man killed another with a stone. After that it was the custom with the old people; who ever happened to pass that stone should throw a stone near the spot the stone was dropped at the man or if not something would happen to the person afterwards. Up to the present day there is a cairn of stones to be seen on the side of this old road . . .
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